We’re at a weird point for Caol Ila. As of writing this. Which is 2021, unless you’re currently living through it, at which point your brain has correctly noted it’s 2040 and the end times have begun with less fanfare and more fake articles about how work from home is ruining everyone’s lives.
Recently I’ve seen a change in Caol Ila IBs. Gone are the days when I’d recommend the workhorse distillery to people looking for peat for less money. Now we see the prices rising as Scotch decides that their collective stock holders require more yachts.
As Caol Ila goes from “workhorse industrial distillery” to “fancy Islay distillery that you trade one of your children into the Hunger Games to obtain”, we have to ask: Has anyone decided to cut back on the quality? If you’re going to earn more money, why just increase the price? Why not replace the people with machines? Fire most of your staff and have the remaining ones work long hours unpaid? Use cheaper ingredients? Cheaper barrels?
All of these things are the norm elsewhere, so it doesn’t come as a surprise when it happens to whisky too. Thus I have three independent bottlings of Caol Ila to review and see where the distillery has gone recently. Maybe we won’t see the impact for years, and maybe we never will.
But for now, let’s see how Caol Ila is doing, shall we?
Caol Ila Callisto X 13 2007 Scotch Universe is a 13-year-old Caol Ila that was aged in a first-fill PX Sherry barrel.
So let’s just state my bias, right off the top: Caol Ila? Love it. PX Sherry cask whisky? Love it. First fill aged whisky? Love it. Cask strength? Hell yes, mostly all I drink now.
You hopefully get the picture. This is 100% something I look for.
That all said, I’ll be the first and last to say that stats aren’t everything. Single casks can do funky stuff. It was sold to an independent bottler for a reason.
So let’s see how it turned out, shall we?
Price: € 100
Cask type: First Fill PX Sherry Barrel
Colour: 5Y 8/8
Nose: Smoked salmon, roast chestnuts, farmy, bergamot orange, cocoa
Salty, smoked, and a bit of the sea. Last time I mentioned a whisky had something fish adjacent in a note the owner freaked out and lost their mind, so let me just say this: It’s not a bad thing. It’s just the closest I can come to explaining this particular mix of chemicals that make me smell brine and smoke.
Farmy, nutty, lovely citrus, and lovely chocolate notes. I’m sold. We’re in. Everything is better now.
Taste: Orange, cocoa, cedar, creosote, old peach, smoked honey
No more brine, nuttiness has left, and the farm notes are gone. Much disappointment.
That said, the taste is still very nice. I say that as someone who frankly doesn’t like cocoa and orange together to an extreme level. Yes the strong rough cedar/smoke notes balance out the affront to tongues enough that I’m digging it.
Finish: Cedar, brine, burn, salted caramel, hickory
You know when chefs take on making desserts and they go for balance? Yes, you end up with an impressive dessert. It’s not like the desserts you normally have, for better or for worse.
This tastes like the ingredients to that. There’s a bunch of balance of smoke versus salt and caramel versus smoke. It works.
Conclusion: Very tasty Caol Ila. Not perfect or mind blowing. It’s what I’ve come to expect from Caol Ila.
That nose though… damn, that brings it ahead of the pack. Perhaps that’s why other Caol Ilas are costing more? Everyone jumped up because they missed this one? Did someone feed a millionaire this dram and now he’s bidding to ensure the riff-raff doesn’t have what he feels is better?
Who knows. What I do know is this is an easy buy. It won’t hit the top of the world but damn is it tasty.
Caol Ila 20 1999 Maltbarn showed up, and immediately there was a debate on it (that ended with me splitting it with a buddy). One side mentioned the fact that we used to purchase 20-year-old Caol Ilas for less. The other side mentioned that it was a sherry aged peated whisky from an independent bottler known for both owning a barn and picking some good whiskies.
Suffice to say you can guess which side I, the now owner of half a bottle, picked.
But I’m never 100% right. I come close to 20% on good days. Which is fine. You make 0% of the shots you don’t take and all that.
So let’s see if I was wrong or not, shall we?
Cask Type: Sherry
Number of bottles: 118
Colour: 2.5Y 8/6
Nose: Caramel chocolate bar, brine, rosemary, grapefruit, lily pads, carrot
Immediately sweet and chocolate-y. Good floral elements, some earth, some acidity/citrus. It’s giving me some of what I love from Caol Ila (citrus when it’s good, saltiness, well developed peat) and introducing something new: Interesting earthiness.
Taste: Roast carrot, anise, algae, lime zest
Wow that roast flavour is jamming right up front. Yes, it takes a step back complexity-wise, but not in the way I was expecting. Yes, you get citrus and peat.
Where this differs is the earthiness is beating it all out. Which is odd. I’m not totally there for it, but hot damn is it doing something new.
Finish: Black pepper, fennel, brine, mineral water, smoke
You know when you are finishing up an exam and you get to the last question on the test, you know it, but you don’t have nearly enough time to finish it? That’s the finish. It’s trying to show the sheer amount of notes needed to explain why the Boston Tea Party requires derivatives in order to show the dichotomy of Heathcliff, but it just ends up being written in the margins and being marred by tears.
And if that isn’t too real, then congrats on not having anxiety in High School/Trade School/Cegep/College/University. Feel free to tell me what it’s like not still having night terrors about missing class.
Conclusion: An alright Caol Ila. The nose and the roast parts of the taste are the best part. The nose is meeting the standard many, many other older Caol Ilas do. But damn that finish just petters out, and wow you gotta love earthy elements to enjoy this.
Now I enjoy earth flavours: Cumin, root veggies, and all that is in this house at all times. Here? It’s unique. Now if the finish held up, I’d have said this was another great Caol Ila success. Sadly it ran out of time.
Caol Ila 11 2008 150,000 bottles in Whiskybase is a first for me, as I’ve never had any whiskies from the 150,000 bottles line. Most likely that’s because my country (Canada) hates when you ship any alcohol in without their 2000% tax added onto it. Other than Alberta. But it has its own problems (what with the death of the people for capitalism).
Different groups look for different things in Caol Ila: Some see it as a cheap way to release a peated whisky, and because peatheads will throw money at peated whiskies without reason, it sells. Others do it because the acidity and ash notes of Caol Ila are amazing.
So we have an 11-year-old Caol Ila at cask strength. No idea if it was in an ex-sherry or ex-bourbon cask, and I have no experience with Whiskybase, so no idea what they wanted out of this. Let’s dive in, shall we?
Price: € 82.50
Vintage: October 10, 2008
Bottles: March 18, 2020
Cask type: Hogshead
Cask Number: 318620
Number of bottles: 315
Colour: 7.5Y 9/3
Nose: Cedar, pear, brown sugar, butter popcorn
Cleaner than other Caol Ilas. No ash, more of a cedar note. Very strong. Like you’re working with cedar wood.
Pretty simple though. The cedar and buttered popcorn notes are very strong.
Taste: Ash, butter cloves, pear, grassy, anise
Okay, initially you’re going to go from a fancy, happy cedar note and then realize somewhere between your nose and your mouth it was set on fire. Which happens.
It can be jarring and not totally follow the nose, however given some time it mellows out and has some consistency.
Finish: Pear, cloves, roast veggies, toffee, cinnamon, anise
It’s only once you’ve had a few sips and really get to the end that you realize that the spices and pear are the main aspect of the dram. So you better love anise if you’re picking this one up, as otherwise you’re gonna have a rough time.
That said, the finish is sweet and evens out. There’s a strong earthy/vegetal note right in the middle of it all.
Conclusion: Anise heavy. So much so that if you’re hear for a young, peat forward Caol Ila, then you best be looking elsewhere. This is the relaxed cousin of Caol Ila that smokes pot and always brings simple food to the party.
It’s a calmer, spice heavy Caol Ila. It’s different, and I think it’s more for fans outside of Caol Ila. Not unhappy with it, and happy that they packaged this versus using it to add some spice to a few blends. It’s nice by itself and a good entry into cask strength peated whiskies.
Scotch review #1446-8, Islay review #384-6, Whisky Network review #2134-6